Play Theories was taken from a publication which was the result of a partnership between : The
National Playing Fields Association, PLAYLINK and the Children’s Play Council (March 2000)
Observation of play in the young of various species gave rise t the end of the nineteenth and
beginning of the twentieth centuries to a number of ideas about how play might confer survival
benefits, strengthening the body, rehearsing adult roles, developing adult skills, releasing
potentially destructive ‘excess’ energy. The prolonged childhood of the human young was seen
as necessary to develop the more complex skills and capacities required to become effective as
an adult human.
The twentieth century development of psychoanalytic thought emphasized the role of play in
coming to terms with, and mastering, disturbing experiences. Through play, “fear becomes a
source of enjoyment rather than stress” (Abrams 1997)
In the 1940s, Piagets interest in how children develop literacy, numeracy and social skills led him
to identify pay as less a behavior or activity than a state of mind, which allows the children to
become engrossed in what they are doing. Whatever activity is engaged in is done for the sheer
pleasure of doing it. It is geared towards taking in the external world, rather than adapting to
it, allowing the child to experience a sense of master, which is the source of pleasure.
In the 1990s the psychologist Jerome Singer, giving expression to a later strand of thinking about
the function of play, proposed that children’s play, with its repetitive and exploratory
characteristics, represents “a critically important feature of their development of cognitive
and emotional skills” (Singer 1994)
However, it is play’s potential role in the human development and evolution that highlights its
real significance. Alluded to at the turn of the 20th century in Halls Recapitulation Theory
(1904), and supported in the 1970s, play now features as an important consideration in the
current rapid development of the brain sciences and the flood of neurobiological data (Hughes
1999). Citing Huttenlocher’s work on brain imaging technology, Sutton-Smith (1997) states that
in the first 10 years of life, human children have at least twice the synaptic capacity as children
over ten, whilst Bennet and others (1964), Rosenweig and others (1971, 1972) and Zuckerman
(1969,194) link this ‘plasticity’ to the effect of ‘enriched’ environments. This increasing
understanding of the working of the brain is also leading to a reassessment of what is now called
emotional intelligence (Goleman 1996). It is also giving rise to suggestions that play in young
children may have a critical role in the enlargement of brain capacity.
Researchers and theorists agree that the role of play in child development is under-explored.
However, the theories and findings do allow some reasonable firm proposals about the
contribution play makes to learning, health and well being.
Early Classical Theories
1. Surplus Energy (Schiller 1873 Spencer 1875)
Play is the result of surplus energy that exists because the young are freed from the business of
self-preservation through the activities of their parents. Energy finds its release in the aimless
exuberant activities of play.(Based upon postulates: a quantity of energy is available to the
child; there is a tendency to expend energy thought is not necessary for maintenance of life
2. Relaxation Theory (Lazarus 1883 Patrick 1916)
(Recreation) Play is seen as a mode of dissipating the inhibitions built up from-fatigue due
to tasks that are relatively new to the organism. Thus, play is found more often in childhood.
Play replenishes energy for as yet unfamiliar cognitive activities of the child and reflects deep-
rooted race habits.
3. Pre-Exercise Theory- (Groos - 1898)
Play is the necessary practice for behaviors that are essential to later survival. The playful
fighting of animals or the rough and tumble play of children are essentially the practice of skills
that will later aid their survival.
4. Recapitulation Theory (G ' Stanley Hall - 1906 Wundt - 1913)
Play is seen not as an activity that develops future instinctual skills, but rather, that it serves to
rid the organism of primitive and unnecessary instinctual skills carried over by hereditary. Each
child passes through a series of play stages corresponding to and recapitulating the cultural
stages in the development of the race. (Plays roots are in the ritual of the savage and his need
5. Growth Theories (Appleton 1919)
Play is a response to a generalized drive for growth In the organism. Play serves to facilitate the
mastery of skills necessary to the function of adult behaviors.
6. Ego Expanding Theories - (Lange - 1902 Claparde - 1911)
Play is nature's way of completing the ego an expressive exercising of the ego and the rest of the
personality; an exercising that develops cognitive skills and aids in the emergence of additional
Current Theories of Play
1. Infantile Dynamics (Lewin)
Play occurs because the cognitive life space of the child is still unstructured, resulting in failure
to discriminate between real and unreal. The child passes into a region of playful unreality
where things are changeable and arbitrary.
The child plays because he is a child and because his cognitive dynamics do not allow for any
other way of behaving. Play is an expression of the child's uncoordinated approach to the
2. Cathartic Theory - (Freud 1908)
Play represents an attempt to partially satisfy drives or to resolve conflicts when the child really
doesn’t have the means to do so. When a child works through a drive through play he has at
least temporarily resolved it.
3. Psychoanalytic Theory - (Buhler - 1930. Anna Freud 1937)
Play represents not merely wish-fulfilling tendencies but also mastery -- an attempt through
repetition to cope with overwhelming anxiety-provoking situations. Play is defensive as well as
adaptive in dealing with anxiety'.
4. Cognitive Theory (Piaget - 1962)
Play is derived from the child's working out of two fundamental characteristics of his mode of
experience and development. These are accommodation and assimilation -- the attempts to
integrate new experiences into the relatively limited number of motor and cognitive skills
available at each age.
For more information, please have a look at the following websites:
For more information, please have a look at the following websites
1 http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~play/Lecture%202-Theories.pdfTheoretical perspectives
on play, play and
2 http://departments.weber.edu/chfam/4990a/Theory&play.html Play from a theoretical
point of view
3 http://www.ludemos.co.uk/ The home of therapeutic